Friday, March 31, 2006

Globalization, or, what happened to the boats?

I've been a regular reader of the Economist for some years now. They write competent, challenging, college grade English, and it's interesting to read an outsider's view of American politics. The Economist believes firmly in free trade and globalization; rich countries shouldn't protect their agriculture and industries with tariffs, because it starves people in poor countries who would like to produce agriculture and industrial products for less money, were it not for the tariffs. The mantra is that the rising tide of prosperity raises all boats.

They argue the case persuasively; but I don't live in a poor country whose boat will be raised by the rising tide. I live in the richest country in the world, and around me I see boats stranded by a tide that seems to be going out, as the manufacturing jobs go to China and Mexico, the coffee is grown in Vietnam, and the beef comes from Argentina. And oh, yes - the computer and call center jobs are going to India. The Americans who used to work in factories, or on farms, or for that matter do several kinds of skilled and semi-skilled work which don't necessarily involve a college degree, are now doing - what?

The February unemployment report says unemployment is 4.8 percent, or 7.2 million people, down from 5.4 percent and 8 million people a year earlier. That's a lot of people who'd like to work and can't; but it's OK because it's only 4.8 percent, so we aren't in a recession or anything. Still, there were another 1.5 million people who aren't even trying to find a job; they've given up. And yet: the trend is up. More people are working. What are they working at? Greeting people at Wal-Mart? Flipping hamburgers?

Free trade may be good for the poorer countries of the world; but the net effect in the United States seems to have been to shut down a lot of factories because it's too expensive to pay people the amount that Americans need to make to live on. You can only manufacture things that are cheap enough for Americans to buy, if you pay the people who make them so little that Americans can't live on the wage. What's wrong with this picture?
Henry Ford understood that his business would prosper more if he paid his workers enough that they could afford to buy his products. Somehow that idea has gotten lost, in the race to be the cheapest.

Another piece of this puzzle turned up in a recent Chip Johnson column in the San Francisco Chronicle: local companies can't get high school kids to consider jobs as refinery technicians, assembly line workers, or construction guys. Of course, the ones who will consider it often can't pass the math and science parts of the employers' entrance exams; but that's another rant. I've read other articles about construction bosses who say the American kids they try to hire, won't show up, can't be bothered to do the job right, don't like the hard work. So maybe it isn't just that there aren't jobs.

Some of us discussed this in another thread: Americans seem to have decided physical work is beneath them. Working with your hands is no longer a "good" job. People who chopped their own wood and churned their own butter built this country; now, nobody wants to do vocational training; they want a white collar job. Hey, folks: there's nothing wrong with manual work if you do it carefully and with pride, the way my dad did it for 31 years. Somebody has to tune the engines, fix the plumbing, run the factories (now a species of computer job that you do wearing a hard hat and steel toed boots). So there are two issues:

1. Nobody wants to pay a living wage for blue collar work.
2. Nobody wants to do blue collar work.

I don't know what the answer is; but it worries me. It's not a good world where a few people are really really rich and everybody else is unemployed and broke. France was that way, around 1789; and the 25 years or so after that in France were not amusing at all.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Our Ports Are Safe...

You couldn't invent this stuff. Honest, you couldn't.

About a month ago, everyone was all stirred up, because the British firm that managed about 6 U.S. ports was being bought out by Dubai Ports World, which is owned by the government of Dubai, which is an Ay-rab country. Congress and the media went ballistic, being embarrassingly racist, and leaving our Fearless Leader standing up saying (which was perfectly true), "But they're a very reputable company and they're our allies!" (I admit, that was amusing.)

OK, here we go again: today's AP wire has a reassuring story about the gummint's attempts to protect us from radioactive materials in shipping cargo. They're wrapping up a contract to put a sophisticated radiation detector in the Bahamas, 65 miles from Freeport. A no-bid contract. Which will allow the contract firm to run the equipment without the presence of U.S. customs officials. (Of course, the Bahamas isn't U.S. soil; but the whole purpose of this is to monitor cargo headed for the U.S.) And what doughty
red-white-and-blue American firm gets this contract?

Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. That doesn't sound very American - where is Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. headquartered? Well, in Beijing, in China. In fact, Hutchison Whampoa belongs to Li Ka-shing, who is China's richest man, and on very close terms with the Chinese government, and the senior officials of the Chinese Communist party. Like Dubai Ports World, this is a highly respected international ports operator. Of course, three years ago when Hutchison tried to buy part of Global Crossing Ltd., the administration blocked them on national security grounds. I guess the administration now figures it's all right to let them do this. Without soliciting bids.

How much of this do we have to see before we conclude that the present administration has no more idea how to manage national security than your front doorknob? The Democrats, I admit, have been acting like the gang that can't shoot straight; but can they possibly be worse than this??

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Walls and Borders

I've seen this now in two different articles on the subject of the border, and immigration policy, and I can't stand it any more: pictures of Hadrian's Wall, which the Romans built "to keep out the Scots."

Well, no, they didn't. They built Hadrian's Wall, and its northern neighbor the Antonine Wall, to keep out the Picts, who lived in Scotland in the first couple of centuries AD and didn't like the Romans very much. If you're interested, you'll find a good article on the Romans in Scotland here, see p. 4 of the article for the history of the walls. Or you can read Rosemary Sutcliff's classic novel, Eagle of the Ninth, which will be a lot more fun. It's classed as a "young adult" novel but I can read it still.

In fact, the "Scots" or Scoti as they're sometimes called, came to Scotland from Ireland, where they settled around the third or fourth century AD; they moved to Scotland and united with the Picts against the Saxons and Danes, around the 7th-8th century AD. You'll find a rather wordy history of the Scots at I'm not sure how much I trust their scholarship but it repeats stuff I've read elsewhere.

Getting back to borders with walls on them: we just don't learn, do we? Walls don't keep people out; they just make them mad. The people who smirk and quote Robert Frost, "Good fences make good neighbors", haven't read the whole poem. Frost was extremely dubious about fences.

This particular set of proposed walls is not just expensive, ineffectual, and stupid; it's expensive, ineffectual, stupid, and racist.I observe nobody's proposing a wall on the Canadian border, even though it's quite as porous as the Mexican border and a whole lot easier to walk across in the summer. And as I mentioned in my post on the Dubai Ports World mess, we're at a whole lot more risk from stuff smuggled into a seaport in a container, because only 5% of them are ever inspected. They could put a whole Al Qaeda strike unit inside, an Islamic Trojan horse, and who'd know?

And at least a third of the people who enter the country illegally each year don't come from Mexico at all, and if they do, don't sneak across the border: they come in legally on a visa, and they just never go home. We'd do far more for national security to spend the money on beefing up port security.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Mr. Morford Forswears Violence

And good for him, you may say? What's going on? Mark Morford is a blogger/columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. I don't follow his blogs but I do read his column in the paper (how retro of me); and on March 15 he published an extremely interesting column entitled "I am Done With Violence." I recommend you read it; he says it very well.

He isn't forswearing violence personally; reading his columns, I suspect the most violence he ever inflicts on anyone is to tear into them with his (metaphorical) pen, which is not a negligible weapon. But in this screed he describes how he has come to the conclusion that there is Too Much Violence in American culture, specifically in TV and movies; and that he is suddenly, personally revolted by it and can't stand it any longer. To which I say: congratulations, Mr. Morford. Welcome to civilization. What took you so long?

Violence is a major reason I quit watching movies thirty years ago, and one of the reasons I have quit watching television (the other reasons for deserting television being a general intellectual level corresponding to an IQ of about 14, and the advertisements, which are even worse; but that's another post). In fact, I could barely endure to stay and watch all the way through A Clockwork Orange, and compared to some of the movies that have come out since, A Clockwork Orange is practically a ladies' sewing circle. I remember reading reviews, in the late seventies, of Sam Peckinpah's movies; and thinking, well, I can live without seeing those. And in the interim, it's gotten worse. The movies I watch now are carefully chosen, and very few of them are modern. Thank God for DVDs and Netflix.

Mr. Morford is quite right that one of the basics of most great religions, including Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam (yes, Islam; the Prophet once cut off his sleeve rather than disturb a cat that was sleeping on it), is that one should forgive a slight (the outmoded concept of "turning the other cheek"), and not go after the slighter with a semi-automatic. But it's stranger than just falling away from the tenets of a religion. In America, sex is forbidden, horrifying, not to be shown to small children; but violence - violence is good. We like violence, as a people; we even seem to worship it. But we're horrified by sex. You will never see a movie rated X, or even PG12, because of violence. You could take your 9 year old to see Saving Private Ryan, although I don't recommend it. But one exposed nipple, and the whole world goes bananas.

This, incidentally, is one of the reasons adolescents get into so much trouble with sex (apart from the fact that adolescents + sex = trouble, and right here in River City too): their parents are so conflicted, so embarrassed, so completely unable to talk about sex that they never discuss it with the kids at all, and therefore never warn them of any of the things they would need to know to protect themselves. If parents could be relied on to talk to their children about sex, we wouldn't have to worry about sex education in the schools; but they can't. And the fondness for violence is one of the reasons rape is so common, since rape isn't a sexual act at all but a power trip.

Well, Mr. Morford has seen the light; but he's only one man. Still, he's an intelligent and literate man, and a lot of people read his column. I know, because they all write letters to the editor either complaining or praising. Maybe enough people will read his column, and act on it, to some small effect. We can hope. But I'm still going to screen movie reviews very, very carefully.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Bouquets and Widows

The Dear Abby column has had a running discussion (it really is rather like a print blog sometimes) of a wedding where, when the bride set out to throw the bouquet, a widow in the assembly joined the throng of single women waiting to catch it. In this case, the bride took offense at a widow joining a gathering that was supposed to be restricted to "single women", and ordered the widow back to her table, thus ruining the wedding for her. Dear Abby told the bride off, and so far the mail (at least in today's column) is running five to one in favor of Abby and the widow.

The bride doesn't seem to realize that the class "widow" is a subset of the larger class "single women", that is, women who are not presently married; this class also includes "divorcees". If her husband ever dies, this may dawn on her.

What none of these people seem to have realized is that the bride acted as if she believed the superstition. The idea is that catching the bouquet indicates the next woman to be married. People, this is an old wives' tale. (Sorry. But not very.) It's a game, folks, and any resemblence to real life is purely incidental. And yet, everybody defended the widow, not on the grounds that the bride made a stupid fuss over a meaningless custom, but on the grounds that the widow had as much right to be the next person married as anybody. I agree that the widow does, but...

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Thoughts on Abortion and Women's History

And before I start this, no, I do not want to argue with anyone about abortion. I have my opinions and you doubtless have yours, and neither of us is about to convince the other.

My last post, which was a bit of a rant, has got me thinking about how we reached this polarized state of affairs. You see, I'm just old enough to remember things not only before Roe vs. Wade, but before The Pill became generally available.

I'm convinced that the arguments about life beginning at conception are a sham, although the proponents may believe them. I believe the true root of the opposition to abortion lies in the Christian theological tenet that women are an inferior, evil and weak species who must be controlled by men for everyone's good. Theologians argued for centuries that the Fall was Eve's fault. This all goes back to the ancient Christian dichotomy (it can be traced at least to the early Middle Ages) between the Madonna and the Whore, Mary the Virgin Mother and Mary the Magdalene. These are the principal women in the original Christian mythos, and they sort of sum up the whole cultural attitude toward women. I think it's very significant that they both have the same name.

Christianity never really knew what to do about women. They showed occasional disconcerting signs of intelligence, and men certainly needed them to raise children (men don't take care of children), but they were, well, distracting. And they did, after all, cause the Fall. So the (celibate) men who ran the Christian church decreed that the best thing for the woman was to shut up, have her man's babies, and do what he said. A woman who did that was a "good" woman. A woman who didn't restrict her favors to one man was a "bad" woman and was, in general, barred from marriage at all; because, of course, the man could never be sure her kids were also his. There were always exceptions, and women who got away with things; but overall, for something like fifteen hundred years, women were essentially their husbands' chattel property. Just like the cow.

The bizarre thing about this attitude is that up to 1960 or so, it was still prevalent in a more muted way, at least in the U.S. Good women got married, raised their husbands' babies, and did what their husbands said; women who didn't more or less had to prove continually that they were not whores, because the assumption was that they were (or that something else was wrong with them). And the surest thing a woman could do to prove she was a whore was to get pregnant when not married. Keep in mind that in normal, unprotected sex, the woman has about a 1-in-4 chance of putting a bun in her oven, every time she screws, unless she can persuade her partner to use a condom. Assuming it doesn't rupture. Even with condoms, the odds are about 1-in-10.

Think about this world, readers of the female persuasion, this is the world I was born into: Your best bet is to get married. If you don't get married (assuming you don't want to continue to live with your parents), you have to get a job, but the jobs that will hire women pay coolie wages, and you're subject to sexual harassment all the time. (I didn't get hassled, but I know women who did.) And if you are caught engaging in sex outside marriage, say, by getting pregnant, you can't even get the poorly paying jobs, because now you've proved you're a whore and nobody hires whores to work around decent people.

Single women who found themselves pregnant, maybe in spite of having taken every precaution they could, maybe because they'd been raped, had exactly 3 options if they didn't want to take up prostitution as a career:
  • They could try to persuade some guy to marry them in a hurry. This sometimes worked.
  • They could "disappear" for about 9 months, and give the baby up for adoption. Excuses ranged from "poor health" to "visiting Aunt Mabel". If you were lucky, you came back "cured" or whatever, without visible evidence of a baby. If you were unlucky enough to live in Ireland, this could amount to a life sentence in prison: for details, rent the movie The Magdalene Sisters, and remember that this is based on actual events, which took place in the 1960s.
  • They could try to get an abortion, or to induce one themselves. Since people who performed abortions at that time were criminals (just as they are now in South Dakota), finding them was hard, and you couldn't be sure they'd use sterile instruments, or even that they knew what they were doing. Inducing an abortion yourself could involve mechanical means (ever heard people talk about coat hangers? Think about it) or chemical: historically the herb pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides, a member of the mint family) has been used to induce abortions. Pennyroyal can kill you if you aren't really careful with it.
A lot of women died. A lot of women were mutilated, or made sterile; but they deserved it, because they were bad. They were whores; if they weren't, they wouldn't have gotten pregnant while single. Of course, you didn't have to be single to want an abortion: you might just be poor. If you already have 5 kids and you can't feed them, and your man knocks you up again, you might think about just not having this one. But that's bad - it's your job to have his babies. So you deserve the bad outcome.

In the middle of all this, somebody (I think it was a man, which is funny) invents The Pill, and the effect was cataclysmic: for the first time in history, women could have sex, with virtually no risk of pregnancy. So the people who like to sneer at "bad women" couldn't tell who was a whore. And married women could decide when they wanted to have a baby: they decided whether to take the pill, and when to stop taking it. The sexual revolution was much, much bigger than just girls screwing around: for the first time in history, women were in control of their own bodies. And they began to ask: if we can take precautions not to have babies, why can't we end the pregnancy if the precautions fail, and why is the government telling me and my doctor what we can do with my health and my future? And so we got Roe vs. Wade, and all hell broke loose.

I don't remember when the moralists began to do more than just mutter about abortion; I think it took a few years for them to start blockading abortion clinics. We seem to have largely gotten past the terrorist stage, where the "pro-life" people bomb abortion clinics, and post doctors' home addresses on the Internet to invite people to shoot them. But I think that, whatever the anti-abortion people say, what they really object to is the fact that, with birth control coupled with abortion, women are in control of their sexuality, and of when and whether the sex leads to babies. And the old Christian attitude toward women absolutely cannot stand to have women in control of their sexuality and not subject to their men.

Not all Christian sects believe in the "Eve theory", the weak woman inclined to evil who must be punished if she strays. The more rigid and moralistic the sect, the more likely they are to hold to it; but even Jerry Falwell can't argue publicly, in the 21st century, that women are weak and evil and must be controlled. In 2000, though, Jimmy Carter broke publicly with the Southern Baptist Convention because, among other things, they prohibited women from being pastors and told wives to be submissive to their husbands. (In justice to Mr. Carter, he had other, much more serious objections.)

I feel falseness of the "life begins at conception" argument is proved by the nearly absolute indifference of the Christian right (at least in its public, political statements) to the well-being of the children of single mothers. Child support? Well-baby care? Head Start? Forget it. It's also supported by their opposition to any sex education more detailed than "just say no." They don't want young people to understand sexuality if it also means teaching them about contraception. It's not about life. It's about control.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Sometimes things just get so weird ...

... I don't know what to say:

South Dakota has outlawed abortion except to protect the mother's life, and I bet they argue about that. They aren't the only state that's doing it, either; Ohio, Indiana, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky are right behind. This is the start of the drive back to back-alley abortions with coat hangers. I'm old enough to remember them days. I don't care what the "right to life" guys say: I'm convinced that opposition to abortion is based on a gut-level feeling that women who control their own bodies are evil at a low level, and need to be controlled and punished.

I've read the arguments about protecting life; I'd be more impressed by them if there were any indication that the people spouting them had any interest in that child's well being after it was born. Or in making it easier not to get pregnant in the first place. Somehow it's always the same people who: argue that abortion is murder; insist that contraception is wrong and the only good "sex education" teaches abstinence; and, refuse to subsidize child care for poor women because they should be staying home with the kids. Barefoot and pregnant, that's where they want women.

And then there's Iraq. Our Mr. Rumsfeld said today that "much of the reporting in the U.S. and abroad has exaggerated the situation" in Iraq. It's not really a civil war, the leftist liberal media are just making that up. Actually, I don't think it is a civil war; that implies more organization on both sides than I think exists. It's a total breakdown of civic order; it's anarchy, plus a society-wide vendetta. It's not even new: we saw the same thing when Tito died and Yugoslavia broke up.

There's an old play on Rudyard Kipling that goes, "If you can keep your head when those about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you / ... you haven't grasped the situation yet." That would be Rummy, in fact, that's our whole administration.

Finally, there are the Democrats, our only hope (and what a hope!) of getting these yahoos out of office. What a bunch of Keystone Kops they are. With the biggest political corruption scandal in history staring at them from the Republicans' laps, they can't even focus. The only reason I'm still a registered Democrat is because, in the state of California, registered independents can't vote in the primaries: only party members can vote the party slates. Molly Ivins wrote a wonderful column in the March Progressive on what's wrong with the Dems. She's dead right about them and about the situation, and I want to be the first to say it: Molly Ivins for President!

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Dooby Dooby Dubai

The whole Dubai Ports World mess has so much wrong with it that I hardly know where to start.

First, if we outsource cargo management at our ports to foreign firms (like Peninsula & Oriental), then we've effectively given up control over it. So a firm owned by the UAE government buys a British firm: where do we get a say in it? Neither one is subject to U.S. law. The Brits happen to be managing our ports? Welllll... we can cancel the contracts...

And from what Molly Ivins said the other day, we probably should: those contracts don't require DPW to keep business records in the U.S., and effectively exempt them from U.S. law. Why our government, which is supposed to represent our interests, agreed to a contract like that is - an interesting question, yes?

But the real issue on port security is that no one wants to spend any money on it. It's entirely possible now to track cargo containers with RFID tags: the Pentagon requires it for all their containers. But nobody wants to enforce it on civilian cargo: to get position tracking and intrusion detection (i.e. you'd know not only where the container had been but whether it had been tampered with en route), it'd cost about $200 per container, plus tag readers and information systems for the ports. The commercial shippers say it's too much trouble and too expensive, and it would be a lot of money; and our government never wants to inconvenience big business. Even if it would improve security. And, of course, individual ports would be responsible for funding the technology: the federal government never wants to pay for anything it requires local governments to do. Look at "No Child Left Behind."

Of course, even if we did this, we'd still be vulnerable to a mole working as a cargo handler, who loaded, say, a small nuclear device, and labeled the RFID tag "ball bearings", and sent it off. Which brings us back to those port contracts; because what Dubai Ports World would be running is... the cargo handling.

It just seems to me that if we're going to make all this noise about Homeland Security, and how important it is to foil terrorists, the least we could do is not hire foreigners to manage the entry points to our country. I'm sorry, but either you have an open world in which it doesn't matter where any business is located, or you're fighting a War on Terror. You can't have it both ways.